Singapore: A History of Global Trade

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established the territory of Singapore as a trading port back in 1819. He hoped to find a strategically placed trading zone for the British to monopolize within the Strait of Malacca. The Netherlands controlled the trade in the archipelago region, and the Dutch limited trading for Britain and imposed higher tariffs on them, leading to the need for Raffles’s expedition. Singapore’s deep natural harbor would help Britain gain an edge in international trade, and today, the nation still plays an important part in global commerce.

Raffles negotiated a treaty with the native Malay people in February 1819 that allowed the British to set up a trading post there in exchange for a yearly payment. Raffles decided to maintain a free port in Singapore, collecting no duties, in an effort to make it a thriving trading base, and his idea worked: Traders flocked to the area, helping to bolster its population along with an influx of immigrants from China, Malaya, and India.

The Dutch government tried to halt Singapore’s success by claiming that the treaty Britain had signed for the territory was invalid. The Dutch claimed that their sphere of influence included the sultan of Johor, Singapore’s leader, and they felt that the British had no right to the territory. In the end, the British secured their claim on the country, which was codified in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The British East India Company would oversee Singapore’s trading affairs. The coming years brought more economic development, and with the invention of steamships, the opening of the Suez Canal, and rubber and tin production in the Malaya region, trading became successful for Singapore’s residents as well as Britain.

In 1941, Japan attacked both Pearl Harbor and the coast of Malaya, leading to the official opening of the Pacific front of World War II. The Japanese eventually captured the Malay peninsula and Singapore, and under Japanese rule, Singapore’s citizens endured extreme hardships. Many of the population died during the Japanese occupation. When the Japanese surrendered, British rule was reinstated, but Singapore was in ruins: The Japanese had destroyed many businesses and homes, and the remaining citizens had no employment and little access to food or fresh water. They no longer trusted Britain, as they felt that the British did little to protect them during the war. This led to a gradual separation from Britain, culminating in a 1959 election of the country’s first prime minister.

As the country continued to rebuild, a merger was sought with Malaya, motivated by the idea that a common market could help to foster economic growth. The federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, but political differences led to disagreements and violence, leading to the dissolution of the merger in 1965.

The separation proved to be difficult, as Singapore’s citizens were in dire straits due to a lack of employment and widespread poverty. But under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the country worked toward industrialization, luring foreign investment with tax incentives and an economic climate free of corruption. In tandem with this effort came a push for better education to train unskilled workers. The economy grew, as Singapore began to export garments, textiles, and simple electronics.

Today, Singapore is one of the busiest international ports in the world. Tourism is a thriving industry, as is casino gambling. Financial services also play a large role, and international trade is booming, with Singapore reaping fiscal gains from exports including refined petroleum and electronics. Singapore is also one of the top-ranked nations in the world for the ease of doing business, according to the World Bank.

Here are some resources to check out for more information on the establishment of Singapore and its trading industry: